The Great American Novel: An aspiration to wave a flag to ...

June 30, 1996|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

I was just about to say you never know what to expect except that most people do and then get disappointed when it doesn't happen that way or make a bunch of excuses and pretty soon begin to remember that was what they had really expected anyway, so they were right all along.

Huck Finn didn't surprise me.

On specifics, maybe I was surprised that William Faulkner turned up only once and that in a barn-door scattershot entry. Somebody might have pitched Nathaniel Hawthorne. I might have been tempted to offer Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood" if only to provoke a squabble about its novel-ness.

I'm grateful to the 19 people who responded to my question, which appears at the top of this page, and which reasonable people might dismiss as between outrageously presumptuous and sophomorically reductive.

I am delighted that more than three-quarters of the people we asked have their responses on these pages today - and that many of the others had excuses that did not constitute rejection of the idea itself.

What's the idea, anyway, this Great American Novel thing?

The term began turning up a lot in the late 1800s and has lived on, immortal. "The Great American Novel," Frank Norris wrote, "is not extinct like the Dodo, but mythical like the Hippogriff. . . the thing to be looked for is not the Great American Novelist, but the Great Novelist who shall also be American." Not long after, Jack London wrote: "I'd rather win a water-fight in a swimming pool, or remain astride a horse that is trying to get out from under me, than write the Great American Novel."

Claws and hooves

Norris' simile was, of course, the ancient mythological progeny of a mare and a griffin, with the head, fore claws and wings of its sire and the rear hooves, body and tail of its dam. London was, of course, granted his wish, arguably in spite of himself.

More frequent than such playfulness, of course, have been endless uses of the term as a fanciful aspiration, more hippogriff than serious ambition. How many thousands - hundreds of thousands - of Americans have declared as they fled to the beach or the woods an intention to produce TGAN?

The mere fact that Norris, London and many others have made such sport of the idea of an ultimate literary hyperbole gives legitimacy to the idea.

Do read the responses. They are provocative, serious, delightful, nourishing.

In summary: There are five votes for Mark Twain, four of them for "Huck Finn" and one for "Pudd'nhead Wilson"; three each for "Moby Dick" and "Uncle Tom's Cabin"; three for Henry James, all different novels; two for "Invisible Man"; and one vote each for 11 other books, of which all but four or five are solidly within the traditional literary canon.

Only one of the nominations could be even remotely associated with the fads and furies of current "culture theory" and that was by one of the only two respondents who rejected the essential premise of the question.

For me, the most interesting and gratifying declaration of the exercise is its overpowering consensus. The respondents are 19 people of extraordinarily diverse backgrounds, roles and experience. Perhaps the only common threads are that they are serious readers and that they were willing to respond.

That consensus says something very important - particularly important, I believe, in this era benighted by virulently anti-intellectual dismissals of the very principle of excellence.

The point needs no belaboring: They just don't come much deader, whiter or maler (take that Norman, babe) than ol' Sam Clemens. Of course Stowe and Ellison are not DWMs, but they are unarguably within the canon. So here a stirring majority of between 15 and 17 of a random jury of 19 declares in essence that the literary canon, like natural law, is not arbitrary.

The only quibbles I would take would be with my old friend and colleague John Carroll's dodge into abject multiculturism, and he eases the pain by saying outright that his is a political and not a cultural conclusion. Still, there is an echo in such an answer of the dead hand that grips the throat of much of the American academic world today.

Principle of excellence

It is not that Dead White Males are superior for being dead or white or male - but that to assign critical superiority to anybody for reasons other than genuine excellence is to attack the very principle of excellence.

What's excellence? Ask these 19 respondents. Somehow they seem to agree on standards and thus on the principle.

Fractionalization betokens the most threatening problem besetting American intellectual and indeed political life today. The inevitable result is the cubbyhole hyphenation of American society, aspirations and the broader values of culture. The threat of that to the social order is that it engenders just the sort of multiculturalism that is now gleefully celebrated in Bosnia.

Getting back to the Winner-and-Still-Champion: I would hope that the grand outpouring of enthusiasm for "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" might suggest something to the faddish schoolmarms who have censored that great and noble book from the reading lists and libraries of schools throughout the United States.

The endorsement here might - just might - penetrate their consciousness with the obvious fact that offensiveness of certain words, as found in "Huck Finn," is a challenge to teachers to explain the concept of contemporary vocabulary - that different times abide differences in language. That is an idea that most 6-year-olds can comprehend quite masterfully if given reasonable guidance.

Enough preaching. Shoot off a rocket for the survival of Western culture on Thursday. And read some good American stuff.

` Pub date: 06/30/96

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